Don Asher’s Battered Grand

SFJAZZ has an unprecedented outdoor tribute, the Raise Up Off Me Alley. Hampton Hawes’s memoir is celebrated by jazz buffs,  but it was still surprising to see SFJAZZ honor a book. The fog cleared when talking to Robert Mailer Anderson, the board member who proposed the alley’s name. Anderson is writer and literary maven, and when he showed me a first edition of Raise Up Off Me signed by both Hawes and co-writer Don Asher I may have drooled a little bit.

While Don Asher is generally known only for the work with Hawes, there is one other Asher that should be on the shelves of the serious jazz book lover: Notes From a Battered Grand: A Memoir: Fifty Years of Music, from Honky-Tonk to High Society. Apparently Asher never made a record but he was obviously a competent musician. He grew up next to Jaki Byard, and one gets the sense that Asher knew he was never going to be a Byard so settled for being a superior cocktail pianist.

In addition to great stuff about Byard, there’s much more of general importance in Battered Grand, including how black musicians taught him to swing and a detailed explanation of how 60’s rock music was hard for the veterans to play. Asher’s voice is amusing and secure. I wish I had interviewed him, or at least been in his presence once: Asher died in 2010, and apparently still played cocktail piano in San Francisco until near the end.

Despite being the kind of virtuoso who could easily outgun any competition, Oscar Peterson was a very good colleague. For example, in Raise Up Off Me, Oscar cameos as a kind of helpful older brother to Hawes.

A video has turned up of Oscar hosting an informal TV show with guest Jimmy Rowles. Rowles is in a blue leisure suit, shy and smoking on camera. There is unrehearsed dialogue and Oscar is very classy throughout. The whole cast (with Ray Brown and Bobby Durham) sounds great but Jimmy’s chorus on “Our Delight” is simply to die for:  improvised, surreal, vocal, swinging.